The annual exhibition was first set up in 1949, based on an initial idea by Carel Weight for the British Society of Artists Galleries and known as Young Contemporaries. In the early years the exhibition went from strength to strength, gathering much critical and audience attention. Until the 1969 exhibition, artists and art specialists had selected Young Contemporaries. In 1969 and during the controversial exhibition of 1970 at the Royal Academy, students controlled selection themselves. The 1970 exhibition was the last for a few years.
In 1973, tutors from some London colleges - including Gillian Ayres, Paul Huxley and William Tucker - banded together to revive the exhibition. A new constitution was drawn up. The exhibition was renamed New Contemporaries and its first showing took place at Camden Arts Centre in 1974.
By the 1980s, the exhibition was held regularly at the ICA and a Permanent Committee supported the exhibition management until 1983. Each year, the exhibition was selected and organised by students. The last exhibition, before running out of steam, was wracked by financial problems, leaving the student organisers with personal debt. It was finally disbanded in 1986. The 1986 catalogue contained a historical introduction by Andrew Lambirth, 'New Contemporaries Past and Present'.
In 1987 the Arts Council of Great Britain commissioned a feasibility report on New Contemporaries to look into the future viability of the exhibition. The report was published in 1988 by Richard Stokes, who then became the Chair of a Volunteer Board of Directors, and a new constitution and new structure for the organisation was established. For the first time, the exhibition was supported by professional administration and adopted a model of curatorial and college independence, inviting an outside team of selectors from the arts profession each year.
The exhibition was relaunched at the ICA in 1989 and toured to four regional centres. From 1989-1994, the exhibition was sponsored by British Telecom and from 2000 is sponsored by Bloomberg. Apart from 1995, due to the absence of a sponsor, the exhibition has maintained an annual presence. In 1996, the exhibition attracted the patronage of James Moores and a commitment to the city of Liverpool, premiering every two years as part of the Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art. New Contemporaries is also a revenue client of Arts Council England.